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Roger Weller, geology instructor
by Kenneth Goodman
The California Gold Rush
One of the largest migrations in history began in 1849. It all started the year before when gold was found in John Sutter’s mill in California. The person who found the gold was James Marshall, who worked at Sutter’s mill. J.S. Holliday’s book The World Rushed In gives Marshall’s account of the finding of the gold on January 24, 1848: “My eye was caught by something shining in the bottom of the ditch…I reached my hand down and picked it up; It made my heart thump, for I was certain it was gold. The piece was about half the size and shape of a pea” (33) At first the other workers were quite skeptical; however, after some careful testing, it was determined that Marshall had indeed found gold.
Marshall. (Copyright Wikipedia)
Sutter. (Copyright Wikipedia)
When word of the discovery got out, people began to have “gold
fever” and started streaming into California to try to “strike it rich”. At this
time, California was virtually uninhabited except for Spanish monks, occasional
Catholic missions, and various Indian tribes. Aside from the European
explorations of the 16th and 17th centuries, California
was also mostly unexplored, as well. As the people flooded California, mining
towns were quickly established. Most of these early towns were quite rough and
tough. With the absence of law and order in the majority of the towns, many
miners would simply take the law into their own hands. Lynchings were fairly
common in this kind of atmosphere. Sometimes, there would not even be a trial.
The person who was thought to be guilty would simply be hung before he could
receive a fair, or occasionally, unfair, trial. However law eventually did come
to the towns. The way to California was often quite brutal. Lack of food, lack
of water, and sickness all took their toll on the emigrants. The California
Gold Rush by John Caughey describes this: “Travelers were laid low by chills
and fevers…Cholera struck hard and mercilessly. Many victims died within a few
hours; most by the second day” (104). Due to this, Caughey says, “Quite a number
of the emigrants changed their minds about going to California” (105).
A miner panning for gold. (Copyright Wikipedia)
Another hardship that the emigrants had to face was the terrain.
It was not all beautiful grasslands and fresh water; there was also far-reaching
deserts and alkali-laden water. A book titled Journals of Forty-Niners by
Leroy Hafen contains an excerpt of a miner’s journal. This miner, George
Cannon, tells of a group of emigrants who inadvertently attempted to cross Death
Valley: “Around the valley they wandered, and the children, crying for water,
perished...After wandering for some time, it is said, the survivors found water
in the hollow of a rock in the mountains, and a few finally succeeded in making
it through. I have heard it stated that eighty-seven persons, with numbers of
animals, perished in this fearful place, and since then it has been called Death
Valley” (254). Many miners were unsuccessful at finding gold; however, some did
manage to strike it rich and found large amounts of gold. According to J.S.
Holliday’s book The World Rushed In, there was one area in California
where “two men…obtained in seven days $ 17,000 in gold” (40) This same book
tells of a group of miners who “had raised in three days over $ 15,000” (304)
This was most definitely an important event in American history and also in California history. One year after the gold rush began, in 1850, California was admitted as a state to the Union.
Caughey, John Walton. The California Gold Rush. California: University of California Press. 1975. Print.
Hafen, LeRoy, ed. Journals of Forty-Niners. California: Arthur H. Clark Company. 1954. Print.
Holliday, J.S. The World Rushed In. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981. Print.